Movie Review: “Leviathan”

   The year was 1989 and as Hollywood waved farewell to Indiana Jones as he embarked on his “Last Crusade” and waved hello to the beginning of a new decade, there was a worry in the air about the next great film franchise. At some point, a whisper floated across the grapevine that James Cameron, hot off the success of “The Terminator” and “Aliens,” had settled on the bottom of the ocean for his next feature – “The Abyss.” The story was about a group of miners who would be called on for a dangerous rescue mission only to encounter aliens and then… who knows?

   “Brilliant!” exclaimed Hollywood executives. “Get me sea pictures featuring aliens!”

   Lo, did the battle horn sound, and two other such films of disparate quality were unleashed on an unsuspecting film going populace. This is part 1 of 3 as we hop into the Wayback Machine and dive deep to the murky depths to see what was found, and use that wreckage to have a better understanding of what eventually would be.

   The first film we’ll look at is “Leviathan,” a shockingly taut rip-off of “Alien,” “The Thing,” and whatever else you can think of because this has it all. The producing team was behind “Die Hard,” the score is by Jerry Goldsmith, and the special creature effects are from Stan Winston. There were serious heavy hitters responsible for what ultimately was a so-so creature feature.

Peter Weller stars as Beck, a geologist charged by a megacorp to oversee a mining operation at the bottom of the ocean. While the suit in charge, played by Meg Foster (who oozes so much sleaze she leaves a trail) periodically checks in on him, his primary focus is keeping his drillers on time and on schedule. They were sent to such depths to find veins of silver ore, and mining under those conditions is difficult to say the least.

When hothead Sixpack (an unhinged Daniel Stern) goes off the deep end, so to speak, and wanders too far from the team, he finds a sunken Russian freighter. Weller and the good doctor, played by Richard Crenna, work to decipher what happened to the ship while the crew split up the haul as if they’re modern pirates. Sixpack sneaks a flask filled with vodka only to later, after sharing it with another crewmate, fall ill.

As it turns out, Russian scientists laced the vodka with some nasty stuff and once Sixpack dies, the fun begins.

The Russians were experimenting with genetic manipulation and used their own crew as test subjects. Once the infection spreads to the American crew, they rapidly learn that getting to the surface alive is going to be far more difficult than they feared. Compounding matters is a storm that makes a rapid retrieval impossible. The miners find themselves trapped on the ocean floor squaring off against a monster with incredible regeneration abilities that absorbs the crew members one by one, and isn’t concerned about trying to hide in plain sight.

   Yes, it’s pretty much a rip-off of “The Thing” only this time the monster couldn’t care less about being subtle. It wants to absorb everyone, grow stronger, and then… I don’t know. Maybe swim to Jamaica or something? It looks like it could do exactly that because the creature effects by Stan Winston and his team of wizards combined numerous aquatic creatures into a singular beast. The result may be a little uneven, but it looks good the few times it isn’t hidden by quick fire editing or lack of lighting.

   The production design is solid. I have no idea what living on the bottom of the ocean would be like for miners or undersea explorers, but the set design team did their research and combined the functionality of Star Trek ships with the blue collar aesthetic oil workers. The same could be said about the other two entries in this list – “Deepstar Six” and “Underwater.” The tough nut to crack is nailing that lived-in feel, the sense that the whole place stinks of body odor, grease, oil, and recycled air. The sets in “Leviathan” achieve that because you can imagine a horrid stench billowing forth if it ever surfaced and popped the hatch.

The cast is what keeps the film moving. Weller and Crenna are solid anchors, with a surprisingly buff Hector Elizondo and Ernie Hudson boosting the energy of the rest of the team, especially Amanda Pays who acts as a solid foil for Sixpack and Beck both. They all have a believable rapport, and director George P. Cosmatos (fresh off “Cobra” and who would later direct “Tombstone”) keeps things lively. The scenery gets trashed and the crew has to jump through one hoop after another to escape, but I never felt like the film cheated by introducing exactly what the crew needed to overcome the next hurdle.

A movie doesn’t always need a message or some deeper meaning, or theme. In the case of “Leviathan,” the simplicity of the tale works to its advantage. A deadly monster stalks a small team of fun characters in a constrained environment over the course of a brisk 90 minutes. Perfection. It’s a fun movie with solid creature effects, a cast of actors you’ll enjoy spending time with, an excellent Goldsmith score, and great tension throughout. Recommended.

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